Sunday, January 5, 2014

Epiphany Sunday

It seems the Church has decided to move the Feast of the Epiphany, the commemoration of the Gifts of the Magi to the newborn Christ child, to the Sunday immediately following New Year’s Day. I'm not entirely pleased with that decision, but then, I still celebrate Memorial Day on May 30. Anyway, if you're desperate for a "pure" Epiphany rant, here's the one I posted last year at this time. I find that I cannot usefully add to it.

Epiphany has been variably interpreted to mean revelation or realization. There isn't really that much room between the two phenomena. A sudden realization is seldom traceable to an identifiable observation or chain of reasoning. Such an awakening could well be a gift from On High; at any rate, we would be hard pressed to prove otherwise. What matters is the soundness of the fresh knowledge: its trustworthiness and its wholesomeness, properties very difficult to separate.

When the subject is religious faith or belief, there will always be room for both dissent and doubt. That doesn't mean that two contradictory propositions can be simultaneously correct, but that in matters of faith we are allowed no certainty while we linger under the veil of Time. He whose faith is founded on a personal revelation proceeds from private knowledge. A legally minded type would tell you: revelations are not admissible in court. Paul of Tarsus did not rise among the Apostles by presenting irrefutable evidence of having been chosen, but by the evident force of his conviction and the efficacy of his labors.

Revelation of another sort is critically important to many Christians. The Bible is regarded as a source of revealed knowledge, even though every word of it was penned by men. Indeed, much of the Old Testament is probably heavily fictionalized if it isn't pure fiction meant to instruct by analogy.

(A colleague of mine who abandoned the Church once said that the Bible should come with a warning sticker: Important, If True. However, much of his disdain attached not to Christianity but to the behavior of far too many Christian clerics. Given his focus, and his apparent unwillingness to distinguish between core Christian doctrine and the misbehavior of some in Roman collars, I decided not to press him about the matter.)

Many "returnee" Christians -- we who drifted away from the Church for some reason and have been moved to return to it in our latter years -- claim to have experienced a personal revelation. The cynic tends to attribute such returns to the combination of a guilty conscience with a cover-your-ass mentality: "I know I've been a bad boy, and even if the Christ story seems wildly implausible it might be true, so I'd better hedge my bets." If you've ever seen the movie The Boys In The Band, protagonist Michael provides an example of that sort of thinking.

I can speak only for myself, but it wasn't that way for me.

[The following was first posted at Eternity Road on December 9, 2007.]

He was far from home, alone in a sterile room in a cookie-cutter businessmen's hotel, a storage warren for men on the road for purposes not their own. The television was off. The mini-bar beckoned, but he knew better than to indulge in his present mood. Dinner could wait, and anyway, there was room service around the clock.

He'd just returned to his lodgings after an exhausting day. It had been filled with frustrating negotiation and petty bickering, even though he and his hosts were employed by the same firm. He'd never liked being on the road; it impeded his sleep and compounded his anxieties. On that occasion, he had more than usual to worry about, for he and his wife had fought bitterly on the night before his departure. They'd had their differences before, but the most recent set had reached an unprecedented pitch. Divorce seemed imminent.

For several years his life had been filled with anxiety and fatigue. Despite an impressive list of accomplishments and a reputation as a genius in his field, his employment had become insecure. He'd worked hard at being a good husband and father, but his children had turned away from him and his wife had grown cold. His health wasn't what it had been; several maladies common to older men had come upon him, further sapping his energies and causing him to wonder if his time of power was drawing to an end.

None of his troubles were new or nearly so. Yet he hadn't learned how to carry them in a way that would allow him not to dwell on them. They were forever near his thoughts and often at the heart of them.

His strivings had begun to seem pointless. What did it matter how good he was at his trade, or how dedicated he was to it? His achievements would soon be surpassed by other, younger practitioners. No work of man's hand wears the crown of its kind for long.

His attempts to heal the wounds in his family appeared doomed. His wife's priorities had drifted from his. Their lives centered on entirely different things. Their relations with their children were no longer as a couple, but as disjoint individuals. She could not abide any of his few friends; out of a desire for peace, he'd ceased to have them in his home. She would not have any of her family or friends to visit, perhaps out of fear that he'd treat them in similar fashion. He couldn't remember ever having done so, but surely she had a reason.

He was a scientist by education and a critical thinker by inclination and long habit. It was not his way to leave a problem unanalyzed, no matter how tender. But in his attempts to deal with his personal troubles, his powers failed him.

After all, he told himself, don't innumerable other men face the same sorts and sets of difficulties? My sorrows aren't unique. My colleagues share them. Some of them must bear far worse burdens. But they don't least, not where I can hear. Are they better equipped to deal with their slings and arrows than I am with mine?

He could not know. He would not ask.

Worst was the sense of meaninglessness. Nothing he did, or refrained from doing, would affect more than a few lives at most. Were he to die that day, he would be swiftly forgotten, even by those closest to him. In the cooler reaches of his mind, he knew that that is how it must be. No man should matter critically to great numbers. All grief must give way to the imperatives of life and the needs of the living. No individual, be he ever so gifted, should have the power to upset those balances.

In the place where his agonies lived, he knew he could not resist despair and its accompaniments for much longer. He'd begun to toy with terrible ideas. He'd managed to refrain from embracing them, but how much longer could he withstand the temptations?

Restlessness impelled him to motion. He donned his coat, strode out of the hotel, got into his car and drove aimlessly down the little harbor town's waterside street. Fishermen and pleasure boaters roamed the docks, in their several ways concluding their days on the water. Harborside bistros bustled with dinner trade. The late-winter evening was alight with commerce and indulgence, energies not yet spent by the day's labors.

Just past the docks and the commercial zone stood a small Catholic church, a white-clapboard saltbox with a modest cruciform spire. It appeared unpatronized: the doors were closed, the windows were unlit, and there were no cars in its tiny parking lot. The sign at the curb was illegible in the evening gloom.

Though he'd been raised Catholic, he hadn't been in a church in many years. Throughout his adult life, religion had struck him as a racket, a tool for the enrichment of its hierarchies at the expense of the credulous. Even so, he yielded to impulse, pulled into the lot, and went to the doors. They were unlocked.

There was no one inside. The nave was both short and narrow. The pews appeared old and hard worn. The altar was a simple table. The only light came from a gas lantern mounted over a gilded box affixed to the wall. From his early religious education, he knew it to be a Presence lamp. It was a rule in Catholic churches that the tabernacle -- the gilded box below the lamp -- must always be illuminated, for the transubstantiated host, the body of Christ, resides within.

He marveled briefly at his own presence there. He hadn't intended to visit any particular place. He certainly hadn't gone out looking for a church. He hadn't reexamined his convictions about religion or the supernatural in many years. Yet there he was, in obedience to a sense of obligation he could not define.

He entered a nearby pew, knelt on the kneeler, and made the Sign of the Cross for the first time in nearly thirty years.

It triggered a flood of memories. Humorless teaching at the hands of habited authoritarians, impatient with the questions of the young. A rigid discipline that implied that everything not compulsory was forbidden, or very nearly so. Stories of the lives of saints that emphasized their sufferings and renunciations. A program designed to turn children away from the Church could not have done a better job of it.

But he remembered other things as well. Promises of a blissful life after death. Assurances that a Being infinitely above the mundane and its trials took note of each creature that lived, and loved them all. The serenity of prayer and the quiet majesty of commemorative rituals. A story of unequalled magnificence, of a Deliverer who feared no enemy, over whom death had no dominion. Above all, the certainty that even the humblest life was rich with meaning to an Interpreter that knows all and forgets nothing. Whose judgments were beyond reproach.

Why did I leave all that behind? Was it too poisoned by its disseminators? Was I unable to separate the good from the bad at that age?

When I came into the fullness of my powers, why didn't I reassess it? Was I too embarrassed to do so, when it seemed that all the world had cast religion aside as a bad deal? Or was I unwilling to admit that my youthful reaction to being so brutally indoctrinated might have been excessive?

Apparently it was an evening for unprecedented thoughts. He chuckled at his own sobriety. If the stories were true, there was a battlefield within him, over which gods and demons struggled with total dedication and transcendent fury. Yet all he could remember of the days when those ideas had first been broached to him were humiliations, exhortations to repentance for guilt he didn't feel, and wooden paddles wielded to quell the unruly.

Were the stories true? His habits of analysis and the rigorous examination of evidence demanded that the question be squarely addressed. They could not be proved. Could they be disproved?

The key narratives were almost two millennia old. They confirmed one another, but no non-Christian source confirmed them in their totality. They spoke of suspensions of the natural law -- miracles -- of a kind never before attributed to any figure. If they were true, that Figure had to stand above Man in the order of things. If it were so, He could not have been a temporal, goal-driven creature, for He had no agenda of His own. He traveled, taught, healed, suffered, died...and rose from the dead.

Insight came upon him in a flash of blinding purity.

Of course no non-Christian source would fully confirm the Gospels. Anyone who wrote objectively of the miracles, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, reporting them as observed, well-testified facts, would have to be a Christian. He couldn't do so otherwise. So the lack of non-Christian confirmations means nothing.

It could all be true. It can't be disproved. All it requires is that I allow that there might be a God -- a Being above and apart from temporal reality, to which temporal reality is subject. There could be. That can't be disproved either.

Men went to horrible deaths rather than renounce it. Many men.

There are no words to describe what followed. Faith exploded through him, a Christian satori whose suddenness and totality stopped his perception of time. Was it God speaking to him along some trans-dimensional channel? Or was it his need for meaning, for a niche in existence that would endure after his mortal struggles had ended, groping blindly for its last remaining chance?

He could never know. But knowing was unnecessary. Acceptance was all that was required of him.

"Our Father, Which art in heaven," he murmured, "hallowed be Thy Name..."

May your personal epiphany, if you haven't had it yet, come swiftly and surely.

And may God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

Adrienne said...

It triggered a flood of memories. Humorless teaching at the hands of habited authoritarians, impatient with the questions of the young. A rigid discipline that implied that everything not compulsory was forbidden, or very nearly so. Stories of the lives of saints that emphasized their sufferings and renunciations. A program designed to turn children away from the Church could not have done a better job of it.

I was so lucky to have a completely different experience as a child.

The nuns who taught us (Sister's of St. Joseph in St. Paul, MN) were absolutely wonderful, loving, and extremely well educated. The fact that they had to put up with me is testimony to their kindness and fortitude. I still pray for them.

Sadly, the current Sisters of St. Joseph have completely run off the rails with their embrace of "social justice" and eastern mysticism.

Most of those who leave the Church now do so because they have never been taught the truth of the faith.